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'We weren't afraid to keep trying different things': Hot Hot Heat bids farewell with final album

Melody Lau

After 17 years, Victoria, B.C., indie-rockers Hot Hot Heat are calling it quits. The band, which has put out four albums and numerous hits throughout its career including “Bandages,” “Talk to Me, Dance With Me,” and “Middle of Nowhere,” will cap off its run with one final, self-titled album.

Hot Hot Heat’s fifth album marks its first in six years, a process that saw the band attempt to finish the album not once but twice, and they are very proud of the results, adding that this is the high note the rockers want to leave things on.

The album draws from the band’s best strengths: energetic melodies and infectious pop hooks. Lead single “Kid Who Stays in the Picture” is a mélange of swirling synths, echoing guitars and lead singer Steve Bay’s soaring vocals; “Magnitude,” is a saccharine piano number. Closing track “The Memory’s Here” is a touching send-off in which Bay repeats a mantra of sorts: “The memory’s here it won’t go away/ the memory’s here it won’t fade away.”

CBC Music talked to Bay recently to discuss the band’s new album and the decision to end the band.

You wrote this last album between 2011 and 2014, is that normally how long it takes you to write and record an album?

Normally I’d say it takes us two years per record…. Well, it depends. It depends on how much touring you’re doing. Some bands can write on the road whereas we were never really able to write on the road that much. So much of how long it takes to make the record just depends on how united you are creatively. Often it takes a while. With this record, we wrote so many songs before we finally had 10 where we were like, here are 10 songs that we’re not arguing about so let’s put these out.

We wanted it to feel good and upbeat and still have the Hot Hot Heat thing, which I think just provides you with energy when you listen to it. It’s entertaining and energetic and exciting, it’s not asking everyone to turn down their energy levels. A lot of records, they want you to emote in a dark way and that’s just not the kind of music I listen to, you know?

How did the recording process go?

We made the record twice. The first time was after I had been working on a lot of my side project Fur Trade where it was written very methodically so I thought, oh let’s make the Hot Hot Heat record like we did the Fur Trade record. So we wrote a lot of the songs in my studio but it just didn’t feel like it sounded like a Hot Hot Heat record and we all kind of drifted apart, separated and worked on other things.

And then I did the Mounties record where we wrote and recorded everything in two weeks and that was just such an inspiring process. Creatively, the ideas felt very fun and different and it didn’t feel like anything I would’ve done if I was writing and recording in a traditional way so I said, OK why don’t we finish the Hot Hot Heat record? Take the songs that we did the first time and reinterpret them, re-record them in the same studio we did the Mounties songs in with all the same gear and we’ll get [Mounties member Ryan Dahle] to co-produce it. So we kind of just copy and pasted the approach but the results were totally different but it meant that we were able to finish the record and put out a record that was recorded live with all analog synths and live drums.

You mentioned you wrote a lot of songs for the record, so what will happen to all the other songs you wrote?

I don’t know. I think there’s a folder of about 35 unused songs from over the years, it would be nice if somebody leaked them or something!

I mean, you can leak them.

If I did, I’d probably get sued by Warner Bros. or something! But if somebody else did it, it would be like, "Well what do you know!"

At what point in this whole process did you decide that this would be the end for the band?

I guess while we were in the studio, there was a feeling of, OK this might be the last one but we never really like to say that out loud. We took a rule from the Beatles rule book, which was to never say the words "break up." You don’t think about it, you don’t talk about it.

But after the record was done, we started getting asked by management to promote it and tour it, and I was working on so many exciting things that I just never really woke up and thought, OK today’s the day I want to start planning the tour. There was no definitive point where we decided to break up, to tell you the truth, we all just faded in different ways. Eventually, I just said I’d love for this record to come out but I don’t see us continuing to do this because we’ve all grown in different directions creatively.

At the beginning, we lived together in multiple houses and at one point it was four of us and a cat in a two-bedroom apartment. We were always such a tight gang but after 17 years of being in a band and slowly growing apart it just seems like the best thing would be to go out on a high note because we all really like the record and we’re really proud of it. We never wanted to be the band that was basically told we should end it after putting out a string of bad albums. We stand by each record and love every song we’ve put out and I’d rather try and go out on a note of us all being proud of our last record.

When you announced your final album, there was an emphasis on your live shows in your statement. Is that something you were particularly proud of with Hot Hot Heat?

I do like when I run into people that have seen the band live. It’s always a really excited conversation. It was always a party and an energy: we came from the punk scene where if people weren’t moving or freaking out then your band sucked! So we were just obsessed with having people move and then that kind of evolved from people moshing to people at least kind of bobbing their heads.

We weren’t afraid for it to be entertaining for people. We wanted it to be fresh and new and something that we really hadn’t heard before. We weren’t willing to copy and paste the template of whatever was trendy at the moment and it almost felt like whenever people started to figure out what our sound was, we would try and change it because we never wanted to paint ourselves into a corner. And that may have been to our detriment but I’m proud of the fact that we weren’t afraid to keep trying different things.

Were there any shows that stood out for you over the years?

We played this one show in L.A. called the KROQ Inland Invasion and it was just all the biggest bands from the ‘80s. We went on third to last, before Duran Duran and the Cure, and before that was Echo and the Bunnymen, Devo, just bands that I grew up with. It was just an exciting time. It felt like we were kind of getting thrown into this ‘80s punk revival thing and I didn’t really like the labelling but I was just glad that the ‘80s were a thing again. I was just so burnt out on the ‘90s. So much of early Hot Hot Heat was, I think, just us rebelling from all the music that we grew up listening to in the ‘90s, which just felt so depressing.

The album ends on a nice note, with a song called “The Memory’s Here.” Can you tell me a bit about that track and how that came together?

We improvised on the last day of recording and that song was just one take. We thought we would do a lot of improvising on the record but in the end that was really one of the only ones that made it on the final record. I didn’t really think of it as anything at the time. I mixed nine of the songs and Ryan mixed this track. He was like, "Hey, I don’t know if you guys remember jamming this," but it’s actually kind of a poignant moment. You know, last song on the album, last song we recorded. It just has a really nice nod to the nostalgia of ending the band so I credit Ryan for that one but it’s nice that it kind of wrote itself.